Spoilers ahead for Joker.
I spent last Thursday and Friday night in a crowded theater. Surrounded by a considerable mix of singles, couples, and groups, I sat in silent excitement for one of my most anticipated movies of the year, Joker. I won’t beat around the bush; I loved this movie. It was better than I ever expected; I walked in the theater confident that I’ll at least like it and walked out speechless, realizing that I may just call this film a masterpiece. It wasn’t until Friday that I solidified that thought.
Leading up to my second viewing, I couldn’t stop thinking about Joker. I already had Hildur Guðnadóttir’s soundtrack for the film on my phone, so I listened to it as I walked to the train after my Thursday show. It was raining outside—how eerily convenient. Aside from Joaquin Phoenix’s transformative performance, her score instantly stood out to me during the film, perfectly encapsulating isolation with a melodramatic but haunting orchestra-led melody. I was in a crowded room, but I felt alone as I watched Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness.
The controversy surrounding Joker has been forced, to say the least. Headlines proclaiming that the film is so dangerous that police will be at theaters undercover (the police were at my Thursday screening in full dress. They were nowhere to be seen after the movie ended) despite police routinely being deployed at other “big” movies such as Star Wars. No credible threats were found by the military despite headlines suggesting otherwise. What was it about this film that had and still has American media convinced that something terrible would happen if audiences watched it? Joker isn’t the first film to center on an unreliable narrator, it isn’t the first film to have a bad guy as the protagonist. There’s no denying that the Joker is a villain, the film doesn’t hide it—but perhaps the discomfort lies in what got him there.
Some critics claimed that this movie would make us sympathetic towards the Joker, therefore sympathetic towards a killer. No, you won’t feel sympathy for the Joker, but Arthur Fleck is a different, complex story. During my second viewing, my feeling of excitement towards experiencing the movie again turned heavy as I watched how society failed Arthur. He relies on various medications just to feel something other than negativity, but nothing works. Funding is cut at the social service center he goes to for therapy, so now he doesn’t have access to his pills. His therapist doesn’t care anymore, because the government doesn’t care. Thomas Wayne is running for mayor and says that he wants to help the city, but he has no connection to working-class people, therefore they reject him.
The brutal—but infrequent—violence wasn’t ingrained in my memory like I was led on to believe. Instead, I found myself constantly thinking back to how Arthur would create fantasies in his head of happiness—when he watches The Murray Franklin Show with his mother Penny, he places himself in the audience where he becomes the center of positive attention from not only the crowd, but most importantly, Murray. The son he never had, that’s what Murray tells him.
Hearing those words puts a smile on Arthur’s face, a genuine smile caused by delusion. But nonetheless, a smile. A stark contrast from the beginning of the film where he stares at himself in the mirror, using his fingers to force a smile so unnatural that a tear escapes his eye. Even more striking is the reveal that Sophie, Arthur’s love interest, is nothing but a fantasy he creates because, in reality, she smiled at him in the elevator. Something so simple turned into something so significant to him because of this brief gesture of kindness. Receiving kindness has been a rarity throughout his life. That’s what makes his eventual turn into the Joker so tragic because there’s no redemption.
He was always going to be beyond saving and both his abusive background and how society treated him as a mentally ill person contributed to it. It’s implied that he repressed the physical abuse that he went through at the hands of Penny’s then-boyfriend because when he finally discovers the truth regarding his mother’s patient file, something “clicks” in him, and he goes on to kill her in the next scene. Although he killed before this moment, this death is particularly significant because he chooses to kill his mother, someone that he personally knows. His rage comes from learning that he’s actually adopted, his real parents are unknown, and that Penny has been lying to him for his entire life.
There’s also something to be said about Penny’s mental illness. Arthur learns that she has narcissistic personality disorder and suffers from delusions, and yet she still maintained custody of him. Why was she allowed to still care for Arthur after being committed to the hospital and neglecting her son while her boyfriend abused him so badly that he got brain damage? She’s a victim of abuse but at the same time, she did nothing to stop Arthur from being abused, even going as far as convincing both Arthur and herself that he was always happy growing up.
If the system valued children who weren’t born into riches such as Bruce Wayne, Arthur would’ve been taken away from her for good and she would’ve stayed at the hospital. Instead, she essentially gaslit him into believing that his purpose was to bring laughter and joy into the world in order to cover the truth about the abuse he endured as a child. He hid his pain so much that it could even be theorized that he developed his laughing condition due to Penny forcing him to smile to suppress his trauma. She was allowed to raise him in a lie because Arthur didn’t matter. He never mattered to them. Even his therapist tells him that, before telling him that they don’t care about her either. This broken system, what little he had in the form of talking to a half-hearted therapist and having medication, stripped from him without a second thought into what the consequences would be.
Joker isn’t dangerous. It doesn’t uplift or validate mass shooters and incels. I think what makes people uncomfortable is their unwillingness to admit that the movie showcases the obvious faults in our system, especially regarding mental health and the disconnect between social classes. Throughout Arthur’s descent into madness, we also watch as the less fortunate lead a revolt against the rich, prompted by Arthur killing three Wayne Enterprises businessmen.
These men are presented as upstanding citizens in the media, but before they were killed, they harassed a young woman and attacked Arthur for his laughing condition. The good guys are nowhere to be found. They were never in Arthur’s life to begin with. The film doesn’t condemn or justify Arthur’s behavior to this, rather, it candidly shows him finally reaching his tipping point because it was only a matter of time. We know killing people is bad. We know it’s bad when Arthur does it, but now we know why he does it.
I’ve been distracted since seeing Joker. When I listen to the soundtrack, a feeling of heaviness takes over. I find myself replaying the events of the film, particularly Arthur’s fantasies, thinking what if, what if, what if. What if something else could’ve been done? But ultimately, nothing could’ve been done to stop him. Help simply was not there for him. And that’s what makes Joker a true tragedy, more impactful than spreading a false narrative that it’s dangerous, that the film will cause an incel uprising. No, it won’t. Joker will make you reflect on how the ugliness of our society is a product of our system, and the realization that even today it’s still broken is enough to leave you questioning our humanity.